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Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms. Related Terms

Special Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 99-02

Updates SRB 94-05
September 1999; revised August 2007

Compiled by:
Mary V. Gold
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
National Agricultural Library
U.S. Department of Agriculture
10301 Baltimore Avenue
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351

View Sustainable Agriculture: Definition and Terms [1999 version], including background information about sustainable agriculture, a glossary of related terms, and the 1999 Reading List with author index. Or view the Reading List Supplement 2000-2007 with author index.
Main URL:

Related Terms

The following terms are commonly associated with sustainable agricultural systems. None are synonymous with sustainable agriculture; each relates to the concept in a different way. Most come under the umbrella of sustainable agriculture. A few, including biotechnology and precision farming, provoke much disagreement as to their appropriate use in a sustainable system. Some of the terms described are conceptual in nature, while others are strictly methodological. Many are combinations of both approaches. Several of these concepts and practices have very literal meanings that have been colored by their historic use and practitioners' experiences.

Alternative Farming/Alternative Agriculture
Best Management Practices (BMPs)
Biodynamic Agriculture/Biodynamic Farming
Biointensive Gardening/Mini-farming
Biological Farming/Ecological Farming
Carbon Sequestration
Carrying Capacity
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Conservation Buffer Strips
Conservation Tillage
Ecological Footprint (EF)
Carbon footprint
Environmental Indicators
agri-environmental indicator
Externalities (Agricultural)
Farmland Preservation/Protection
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)
Grass Farming/ Grass-based Farming
Holistic Management
Integrated Farming Systems (IFS)/Integrated Food and Farming Systems (IFFS)
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
Biointensive IPM
Biological Control/Bio-control
Intensive/Controlled Grazing Systems
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
Local/Community Food System
    Food Shed
    Food Circle
    Food Miles
Low Input Agriculture
Natural Farming
Nature Farming
Nutrient Management
Organic Farming
Precision Farming/Agriculture
Regenerative Agriculture
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program (USDA)
Sustainable Development
Whole Farm Planning



A social or political movement designed to bring about land reforms or to improve the economic status of the farmer." Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. G&C Merriam, 1977.

"What makes agrarianism the ideal candidate for cultural renewal is that it, unlike some environmental approaches that sequester wilderness and portray the human presence as invariably destructive or evil, grows out of the sustained, practical, intimate engagement between the power and creativity of both nature and humans. In agrarian practices we see a deliberate way of life in which the integrity and wholesomeness of peoples and neighborhoods, and the natural sources they depend upon, are maintained and celebrated. Agrarianism builds on the acknowledgement that we are biological and social beings that depend on healthy habitats and communities. However much we might think of ourselves as post-agricultural beings or disembodied minds, the fact of the matter is that we are inextricably tied to the land through our bodies – we have to eat, drink and breath – and so our culture must always be sympathetic to the responsibilities of agriculture." [Norman Wirzba, "Why Agrarianism Matters – Even to Urbanites," In The Essential Agrarian Reader, edited by Norman Wirzba, University of Kentucky Press, 2004. p. 5. NAL Call # HD.E87 2004]

Definition from WikiPedia the Free Encyclopedia. (8/23/07).



Agroecology can be defined broadly or narrowly. "Loosely defined, agroecology often incorporates ideas about a more environmentally and socially sensitive approach to agriculture, one that focuses not only on production, but also on the ecological sustainability of the productive system. [This definition] implies a number of features about society and production that go well beyond the limits of the agricultural field.

"At its most narrow, agroecology refers to the study of purely ecological phenomena within the crop field, such as predator/prey relations, or crop/weed competition." [Susanna B. Hecht, "The Evolution of Agroecological Thought," in Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture, ed. by Miguel Altieri (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1987), p. 4. NAL Call # S589.7.A4]
See also Principles of Agroecology & Sustainability. Available at Agroecology Home Website: (6/9/08)]

Alternative Farming/Alternative Agriculture:

These are essentially synonymous terms encompassing a vast array of practices and enterprises, all of which are considered different from prevailing or conventional agricultural activities. "They include:

  • nontraditional crops, livestock, and other farm products;
  • service, recreation, tourism, food processing, forest/woodlot, and other enterprises based on farm and natural resources (ancillary enterprises);
  • unconventional production systems such as organic farming or aquaculture; or
  • direct marketing and other entrepreneurial marketing strategies." [Nancy Grudens Shuck et al., Farming Alternatives: A Guide to Evaluating the Feasibility of New Farm-Based Enterprises (Ithaca NY: Cornell University, 1988), p. 1. NAL Call # S675.N72 no.32]

Alternative has also come to imply the use of environmentally-friendly farming practices in general, and the benefits of farm diversification. See also: List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. [Available at AFSIC Website: (Reviewed February 2016)]


Best Management Practices (BMPs):

"... BMPs were developed and implemented as a requirement of the 1977 amendments to the Clean Water Act. BMPs are established soil conservation practices that also provide water quality benefits. They include such practices as cover crops, green manure crops, and stripcropping to control erosion; and soil testing and targeting and timing of chemical applications (similar to IPM) to prevent the loss of nutrients and pesticides. District soil conservation agents use BMPs in helping individual farmers develop conservation plans for their farms." [Jean M. Rawson, Congressional Research Service Report to Congress: Sustainable Agriculture (Washington: Congressional Research Service, Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, 1995). Available at CNIE Website: or (8/23/07)]



"At its simplest level, biodiversity is the sum total of all the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms in the world, or in a particular area; all of their individual variation; and all the interactions between them." [Peter H. Raven, "Defining Biodiversity," Nature Conservancy (Jan.-Feb. 1994) 44(1): p. 11]

     Agrobiodiversity "is a fundamental feature of farming systems around the world. It encompasses many types of biological resources tied to agriculture, including:

  • genetic resources - the essential living materials of plants and animals;
  • edible plants and crops, including traditional varieties, cultivars, hybrids, and other genetic material developed by breeders; and
  • livestock (small and large, lineal breeds or thoroughbreds) and freshwater fish;
  • soil organisms vital to soil fertility, structure, quality, and soil health;
  • naturally occurring insects, bacteria, and fungi that control insect pests and diseases of domesticated plants and animals;
  • agroecosystem components and types (polycultural/monocultural, small/large scale, rainfed/irrigated, etc.) indispensable for nutrient cycling, stability, and productivity; and
  • 'wild' resources (species and elements) of natural habitats and landscapes that can provide services (for example, pest control and ecosystem stability) to agriculture.

     "Agrobiodiversity therefore includes not only a wide variety of species, but also the many ways in which farmers can exploit biological diversity to produce and manage crops, land, water, insects, and biota." [Lori Ann Thrupp, Linking Biodiversity and Agriculture: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Food Security (Washington: World Resources Institute, 1997). NAL Call # HC57 E5W755 no.1997 March.] See also: "What's Happening to Agrobiodiversity?" Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 1999. Available at the FAO Website: (8/23/07).


Biodynamic Agriculture/Biodynamic Farming:

Both a concept and a practice, biodynamics "owes its origin to the spiritual insights and perceptions of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist who lived at the turn of the century." Dr. Steiner emphasized many of the forces within living nature, identifying many of these factors and describing specific practices and preparations that enable the farmer or gardener to work in concert with these parameters. "Central to the biodynamic method... are certain herbal preparations that guide the decomposition processes in manures and compost." [1985-1986 Year End Report (Kimberton PA: Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc., 1986), p. 3. AFSIC collection] See also: "What is Biodynamics?" Available at Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association On-line Website: (8/23/07).

Foods produced through biodynamic methods are certified for consumer markets by the Demeter Association. [For information: Demeter Association, (8/23/07)].


Biointensive Gardening/Mini-farming:

John Jeavons and Ecology Action have refined a production system that makes it possible for one person to grow all of his or her family's food using truly sustainable methods that maintain the fertility of the soil without relying on nonrenewable resources like petrochemicals or imported organic matter. [From: John Jeavons, How To Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, And Other Crops On Less Land Than You Can Imagine (Berkeley CA: Ten Speed Press, 1995). NAL Call # SB324.5 J43 1995] The concepts and practices of biointensive gardening were synthesized and introduced to the U.S. by the English master horticulturalist, Alan Chadwick. Important components include double-dug, raised beds; intensive planting; composting; companion planting; and whole system synergy. [Biointensive: A Sustainable Solution To Growing Food (Ecology Action). Available at Ecology Action Website: (8/23/07)]


Biological Farming/Ecological Farming:

Biological and Ecological Farming are terms commonly used in Europe and developing countries. Although sometimes strictly defined, e.g., "Biological farming is a system of crop production in which the producer tries to minimize the use of 'chemicals' for control of crop pests," [John Pesek, "Introduction," Proceedings of the Management Alternatives for Biological Farming Workshop, comp. by Robert B. Dahlgren (Ames IA: Iowa State University, 1983) p. 1. NAL Call # S494.5.P75M35 1983] both biological farming and ecological farming are terms used in the broader sense, encompassing various and more specific practices and techniques of farming sustainability, e.g., organic, biodynamic, holistic, natural.

Norman et al. point to some differentiation between the two terms: "In Europe (e.g., the Netherlands), the term biological often refers to organic farming, whereas the term ecological refers to organic plus environmental considerations such as on-farm wildlife management (i.e., the relationships between parts of the agroecosystem." [David Norman, et al., Defining and Implementing Sustainable Agriculture (Kansas Sustainable Agriculture Series, Paper #1; Manhattan KS: Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1997). Available at K-State Research and Extension Web Site for Sustainable Agriculture: (8/23/07)]



Although farmers have been practicing biotechnology in the broadest sense (i.e. plant and animal breeding to achieve certain traits) for thousands of years, it is the recent breaking of the genetic code that has pushed this science into a new era altogether. Genetic engineering differs significantly from traditional biotechnological techniques in that DNA from different species can be combined to create completely new organisms (Genetically Modified Organisms - GMOs). [Burkhard Mausberg and Maureen Press-Merkur, The Citizen's Guide to Biotechnology (Toronto: Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, 1995), p. 65. NAL Call # TP248.215 M38 1995]

Whether this technology is compatible with sustainable agriculture, and if so, in what ways, provokes much controversy among sustainable agriculture advocates. Products such as plants engineered for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, and bacteria engineered to produce drugs for livestock may point to reduced chemical use and other sustainable applications. But what are the risks?

The Union of Concerned Scientists' list of potential risks related to GMOs include those to human health--new allergens in the food supply, antibiotic resistance, production of new toxins, concentration of toxic metals, enhancement of the environment for toxic fungi; and those to the environment--gene transfer to wild or weedy relatives and increased weediness, change in herbicide use patterns, squandering of valuable pest susceptibility genes, poisoned wildlife, creation of new or worse viruses, and other, so far, unknown harms. [Shaping an Agriculture for the Twenty-First Century: Biotechnology, (Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)). Available at UCS Website: (8/23/07)]

In addition, "The issue of who will be served by this technology and who will set the research agenda of the experts becomes intensely important when so few people control the tools and language of the trade." [Chuck Hassebrook and Gabriel Hegyes, Choices for the Heartland: Alternative Directions in Biotechnology and Implications for Farming (Rural Communities and the Environment; Ames IA: Iowa State University, 1989), p. 3. NAL Call # S494.5 B563H37]


Carbon Sequestration:

"Carbon sequestration is the process through which agricultural and forestry practices remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The term ‘sinks’ is also used to describe agricultural and forestry lands that absorb CO2, the most important global warming gas emitted by human activities. Agricultural and forestry practices can also release CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Sequestration activities can help prevent global climate change by enhancing carbon storage in trees and soils, preserving existing tree and soil carbon, and by reducing emissions of CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)." [Carbon Sequestration in Agriculture and Forestry, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Available at EPA Website: (8/23/07)]


Carrying Capacity:

Carrying capacity is the theoretical equilibrium population size at which a particular population in a particular environment will stabilize when its supply of resources remains constant. It can also be considered to be the maximum sustainable population size; the maximum size that can be supported indefinitely into the future without degrading the environment for future generations. [Patricia Muir, "Carrying Capacity," Oregon State University: BI301 Human Impacts On Ecosystems (Course Resource Guide). Available at OSU Website: (8/23/07)]

"The Earth's capacity to support people is determined both by natural constraints and by human choices concerning economics, environment, culture (including values and politics) and demography. Human carrying capacity is therefore dynamic and uncertain. Human choice is not captured by ecological notions of carrying capacity that are appropriate for nonhuman populations. Simple mathematical models of the relations between human population growth and human carrying capacity can account for faster-than-exponential population growth followed by a slowing population growth rate, as observed in recent human history." [Joel E. Cohen, Population Growth and Earth's Human Carrying Capacity, Colloquium (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 1996)]


Community Supported Agriculture (CSA):

"In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "share-holders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing." [Suzanne DeMuth, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC), National Agricultural Library (NAL), USDA, 1993. Available at AFSIC Website: (8/23/07)]

See also: Community Supported Agriculture Resources, AFSIC. (Reviewed April 2016)


Conservation Buffer Strips:

Conservation Buffer Strips are areas or strips of land maintained in permanent vegetation, designed to intercept pollutants and erosion. Placed around fields, they can enhance wildlife habitat, improve water quality, and enrich aesthetics on farmlands. Various types of buffers include Contour Buffer Strips, Filter Strips, Riparian Forest Buffers, Field Borders, Windbreaks/Shelterbelts, Hedgerows, Grassed Waterways, and Alley Cropping. [Buffer Strips: Common Sense Conservation (pamphlet) (Washington DC: Natural Resources Conservation Services/USDA, 1997). Available at NRCS Website: (8/23/07)]


Conservation Tillage:

Conservation Tillage is a term that covers a broad range of soil tillage systems that leave residue cover on the soil surface, substantially reducing the effects of soil erosion from wind and water. These practices minimize nutrient loss, decreased water storage capacity, crop damage, and decreased farmability. [Conservation Tillage: Effects on Soil Erosion (Publication AE-3050; Ames IA: Iowa State University Extension, 1990 p. 1). Available at ISU Website: (8/23/07)] The soil is left undisturbed from harvest to planting except for nutrient amendment. Weed control is accomplished primarily with herbicides, limited cultivation, and with cover crops.

The National Crop Residue Management Survey (Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC)) specifies that 30 percent or more of crop residue must be left after planting to qualify as a conservation tillage system. Some specific types of conservation tillage are Minimum Tillage, Zone Tillage, No-till, Ridge-till, Mulch-till, Reduced-till, Strip-till, Rotational Tillage and Crop Residue Management. [From: Conservation Technology Information Center. Available at
CTIC Website: (8/23/07)]


Ecological Footprint (EF):

Term introduced by William Rees in 1992 and elaborated upon in his book, coauthored with Mathis Wackernagel, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, 1996 [NAL Call # GF75.W33 1995].

"A measure of how much land and water is needed to produce the resources we consume and to dispose of the waste we produce." [Sustainability Roadmap Glossary, Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland (Australia) Parks and Wildlife Service. Available at Parks and Wildlife Service Website: (8/23/07)]

"A calculation that estimates the area of Earth's productive land and water required to supply the resources that an individual or group demands, as well as to absorb the wastes that the individual or group produces." [National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth Glossary. Available at Public Broadcasting Service Website: (8/23/07)]

Related term

Carbon footprint:

A representation of the effect human activities have on the climate in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases produced (measured in units of carbon dioxide).



"A seal or logo indicating that a product has met a set of environmental or social standards." [Eco-Labels Glossary,, Consumers Union (CU). Available at CU Website: (6/9/08)]

"Labels that identify a preference for a product or service, within a specific product/service category, based on the environmental impact of the product or service throughout its life. In contrast to ‘green’ symbols or claim statements developed by manufacturers and service providers, an eco-label is awarded to specific products or services by an impartial third party based on defined environmental leadership criteria (adapted from the Global Ecolabelling Network website)." [Sustainability Roadmap Glossary, Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland (Australia) Parks and Wildlife Service. Available at Parks and Wildlife Service Website: (8/23/07)]


Environmental Indicators:

There are diverse interpretations as to what constitute environmental indicators and how they should be used. In any system, however, the "goal of environmental indicators is to communicate information about the environment--and about human activities that affect it--in ways that highlight emerging problems and draw attention to the effectiveness of current policies... an indicator must reflect changes over a period of time keyed to the problem, it must be reliable and reproducible, and, whenever possible, it should be calibrated to the same terms as the policy goals or targets linked to it." [Allen Hammond, Environmental Indicators: A Systematic Approach to Measuring and Reporting on Environmental Policy Performance in the Context of Sustainable Development (Washington DC: World Resources Institute (WRI), 1995), p. 1. NAL Call # GE140 E56 1995. Available at WRI Website: (8/23/07)]

Related term

An agri-environmental indicator measures change either in the state of environmental resources used or affected by agriculture, or in farming activities that affect the state of these resources. Examples of sustainable agriculture processes monitored by such indicators are soil quality, water quality, agroecosystem biodiversity, climatic change, farm resource management, and production efficiency. [D.F. Acton and L.J. Gregorich (editors), The Health of Our Soils: Toward Sustainable Agriculture in Canada (Publication 1906/E Chapter 1; Ottawa: Centre for Land and Biological Resources Research, Research Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 1995). NAL Call # S451.5 A1P82 no.1906/E. Available at the Centre Website: (8/23/07)]


Externalities (Agricultural):

"In economics, benefits or costs that are not included in the market price of goods or services. For example, the cost of natural resource depletion, pollution and other environmental and social factors are externalities that often are not factored into the market price of a product." [National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth Glossary. Available from Public Broadcasting Service Website: (8/23/07)]

"Agricultural production affects environmental and human health. Many consequences are borne involuntarily rather than chosen because no formal market trading takes place for ecosystem function or health attributes. These impacts, or externalities, may be quantified indirectly by assigning dollar values through a process called valuation, which informs agricultural production and policy decisions. [Erin M. Tegtmeier and Michael D. Duffy, "External Costs of Agricultural Production in the United States." International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 2, no. 1 (2004). (8/23/07)]


Farmland Preservation/Protection:

"The irreplaceable land that produces our food and provides us with scenic open space, wildlife habitat and clean water is increasingly at risk from urban sprawl and rural subdivisions... According to a 1997 American Farmland Trust study, every state in the nation is sacrificing irreplaceable agricultural resources to urban sprawl. We are converting a total of 1 million acres a year, and while the quantity of top-quality agricultural land being lost varies from state to state, the process of conversion increases the pressures on agriculture even beyond the acres that are actually taken out of production." [American Farmland Trust (AFT), Why Save Farmland. Updated 2007. Available at AFT Website: (8/23/07)]

Actions to reverse this trend are being taken on many levels. Tactics include focusing on policies related to property tax relief and protection from nuisance lawsuits for farmers, purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs, special agricultural districts where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected, comprehensive land use planning, and farm-friendly zoning ordinances.


Good Agricultural Practices (GAP):

"Broadly defined, a GAP approach aims at applying available knowledge to addressing environmental, economic and social sustainability dimensions for on-farm production and post-production processes, resulting in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products. Based on generic sustainability principles, it aims at supporting locally developed optimal practices for a given production system based on a desired outcome, taking into account market demands and farmers constraints and incentives to apply practices. However, the term "GAP" has different meanings and is used in a variety of contexts. For example, it is a recognized terminology used in international regulatory frameworks as well as in reference to private, voluntary and non-regulatory applications that are being developed and applied by governments, civil society organizations and the private sector." ["Executive Summary," Report of the Expert Consultation on a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Approach, Rome, Italy, 10-12 November 2003. (FAO Agriculture Department Report, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations). Available at FAO Website: (8/23/07)]


Grass Farming/Grass-based Farming:

Grass-based production relies on pasture or rangeland to supply the protein and energy requirements of livestock. Grazing and forage feeding replace high grain diets, close confinement and feedlot-finishing during most or all of an animal’s lifetime. The producer focuses on pasture plant and soil management, and proper stocking density and rotational grazing. "An acceptable level of production can be attained as the ecological connections between ruminants, the soil, and the pasture plants is naturally maintained… Pasture-based animal agriculture promotes environmental stewardship and community development owing to the following management practices:

  • Use of off-farm inputs, such as diesel, fertilizer, and purchased feed, are minimized.
  • Use of toxic substances, such as herbicides and soluble fertilizers, is minimized or sometimes eliminated.
  • Limited tillage and use of perennial pastures, which store carbon in the soil while building soil organic matter, conserves soil.
  • Water and energy resources are conserved through monitoring and appropriate technologies, such as irrigation monitoring, solar and wind technologies, and biofuel development and use, where applicable.
  • Proper plant and animal genetics, such as locally-adapted pasture grasses and low-maintenance animals, are selected.
  • Planned grazing systems that favor grass growth contribute to biological diversity.
  • Marketing food to local communities, reducing the distance food travels from farm to plate, provisions the community with better, fresher food.
  • The development of local processing plants is fostered, which adds value to local animal products while providing employment and economic development.
  • A management philosophy is developed that values health in people, animals, plants, and soil." Lee Rinehart, Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Management. ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, 2006. Available at ATTRA Website: (8/23/07)]

"What is the difference between grass fed and grass finished? Grass fed means the animal was fed solely on grass and hay. Grass finished is a term used to indicate that a beef animal has grown fast enough on the pasture to create inter-muscular marbling. This marbling makes the meat more juicy and flavorful but not more tender. Grass finished animals will typically grade High Select or Low Choice under the USDA Grading System. This finish can be determined with an ultra-sound scan while the animal is still alive." [FAQ, Stockman Grass Farmer. Available at Stockman Grass Farmer Website: (8/23/07)]

See also: Graziers Glossary. Stockman Grass Farmer. See also: Intensive/Controlled Grazing in this listing.

Related terms:

Grass-fed beef; Pasture-based farming; Pasture-based dairying; Pastured poultry; Free-range poultry; Intensive grazing


Holistic Management® (HM):

"Holistic Management® originated when HMI’s founder, Allan Savory, set out as a young wildlife biologist in his native Zimbabwe to solve the riddle of desertification. His efforts resulted in the development of the Holistic Management® Model – a proven, whole farm/whole system approach to resource management that incorporates financial planning, land planning, grazing planning and biological monitoring. The process increases soil health, reduces erosion, improves biodiversity and enhances productivity by working with Nature." [Frequently Asked Questions (Holistic Management International (HMI)). Available at HMI Website: (8/23/07)]


Integrated Farming Systems (IFS)/Integrated Food and Farming Systems (IFFS):

Farming research and policy programs have begun to recognize that by viewing farms and the food production system as an integrated whole, more efficient use can be made of natural, economic, and social resources. Included in this concept are the goals of finding and adopting "integrated and resource-efficient crop and livestock systems that maintain productivity, that are profitable, and that protect the environment and the personal health of farmers and their families," as well as "overcoming the barriers to adoption of more sustainable agricultural systems so these systems can serve as a foundation upon which rural American communities will be revitalized." [Oren B. Hesterman and Tom L. Thorburn, "A Comprehensive Approach to Sustainable Agriculture: W.K. Kellogg's Integrated Farming Systems Initiative," Journal of Production Agriculture (1994) 7(1): p. 133. NAL Call # S539.5.J68]


Integrated Pest Management (IPM):

IPM is an ecologically based approach to pest (animal and weed) control that utilizes a multi-disciplinary knowledge of crop/pest relationships, establishment of acceptable economic thresholds for pest populations and constant field monitoring for potential problems. Management may include such practices as "the use of resistant varieties; crop rotation; cultural practices; optimal use of biological control organisms; certified seed; protective seed treatments; disease-free transplants or rootstock; timeliness of crop cultivation; improved timing of pesticide applications; and removal or 'plow down' of infested plant material." [J. Keith Waldron, "Integrated Pest Management," Long Island Horticulture News (July 1989), p. 1. NAL Call # SB317.5 L65]

Related terms:

The term Biointensive IPM emphasizes a "range of preventive tactics and biological controls to keep pest population within acceptable limits. Reduced risk pesticides are used if other tactics have not been adequately effective, as a last resort and with care to minimalize risks." [Charles Benbrook, Pest Management at the Crossroads (Yonkers NY: Consumers Union, 1996), p. 4. NAL Call # SB950.2 A1B45 1996. Available at Pest Management at the Crossroads (PMAC) Website: (8/23/07)]

Biological Control/Bio-control: "Biological control is, generally, human's use of a specially chosen living organism to control a particular pest. This chosen organism might be a predator, parasite, or disease which will attack the harmful insect. It is a form of manipulating nature to increase a desired effect. A complete Biological Control program may range from choosing a pesticide which will be least harmful to beneficial insects, to raising and releasing one insect to have it attack another, almost like a 'living insecticide.'" [David Orr, Steve Bambara, and James Baker, Biological Pest Control: An Introduction (Center for IPM, North Carolina State University, 1997). Available at Center for IPM Website: (8/23/07)] The principles of biological control can be applied against various pest organisms including weeds, plant pathogens, vertebrates and insects.


Intensive/Controlled Grazing Systems:

"The term "Intensive Grazing" is meant to describe livestock and grass management practices that focus on increased levels of manager involvement, increased forage quality, increased meat protection per unit area, and more uniform forage utilization. Managers practising intensive grazing closely follow the interactions between plant, animal, soil and water. They determine where, when and what livestock graze, and control animal distribution and movement. They plan with these factors in mind, and this attention encourages positive attitudes toward the land." [DA Fraser, Farmfacts: Intensive Management of Livestock Grazing (Regina: Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food and Saskatchewan Rural Development, 1993, updated 2006). Available at Government of Saskatchewan: (8/23/07)]

"Controlled grazing is a flexible management method that balances plant and animal requirements. Controlled grazing relies on management, not technology. It uses variable rest periods, short graze periods, high stock densities, and a minimal number of relatively large herds. lt requires changing the stocking rate to match annual and seasonal changes in carrying capacity." [Roger Ingram and Dave Pratt, Working with Nature: The Sustainable Ranching Research and Education Project, (Livestock and Natural Resources, 31-611: University of California, Cooperative Extension, Spring 1997). Available from UC Davis Extension Website: (8/23/07)]

Other terms, related to both dairy and meat production, that fall under the category of Intensive/Controlled Grazing are: Rotational Grazing, Management Intensive Grazing (MIG), High-Intensity Low-Frequency Grazing (HILF), Time-Controlled Grazing (TCG), Holistic Range Management, Pasture-Based Farming, and Voisin Management Grazing.
See also: Grass Farming/Grass-based Farming in this listing.


Life Cycle Assessment (LCA):

"A quantification of the level of energy and raw materials used as well as the solid, liquid and gaseous wastes produced at every stage of a product's life or process. LCA can be conducted for a whole process or for part of a process. Conducting an LCA can be complicated, therefore it is important to set boundaries for the study." [Sustainability Roadmap Glossary, Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland (Australia) Parks and Wildlife Service. Available at Parks and Wildlife Website: (8/23/07)]


Local/Community Food System:

A community food system, also known as a local food system, "is a collaborative effort to integrate agricultural production with food distribution to enhance the economic, environmental, and social well-being of a particular place (i.e. a neighborhood, city, county or region)." [Gail Feenstra and Dave Campbell, "Steps for Developing a Sustainable Community Food System," Pacific Northwest Sustainable Agriculture: Farming for Profit & Stewardship (Winter 1996-97) 8(4): pp. 1,6]

"One of the primary assumptions underlying the sustainable diet concept is that foods are produced, processed, and distributed as locally as possible. This approach supports a food system that preserves local farmland and fosters community economic viability, requires less energy for transportation, and offers consumers the freshest foods." [Jeanne Peters, "Community Food Systems: Working Toward a Sustainable Future," Journal of the American Dietetic Association (Sept. 1997) 97(9): pp. 955-95 6. NAL Call # 389.8 Am34]. See also: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in this listing.

Related terms:

The Foodshed concept, most often attributed to Arthur Getz in his 1991 Urban Foodsheds article in Permaculture Activist [Vol. VII, no. 3], uses the analogy of a watershed to describe "the area that is defined by a structure of supply." Getz used the image of a foodshed to answer the question of "where our food and regional food supply system works." Inherent in this concept, he emphasized, was "the suggestion of a need to protect a source, as well as the need to know and understand its specific geographic and ecological dimensions, condition and stability in order for it to be safeguarded and enhanced." [Nancy Lee Bentley, "Local Food Security: Foodsheds and The Food Circles" (Nancy Lee Bentley/The Food Circle; Sanet-mg post, Apr.1995). Available at Sanet-mg Archive Website: (8/23/07)]

The Food Circle is a "dynamic, community-based and regionally-integrated food systems concept/model/vision. In effect, it is a systems ecology. In contrast to current linear production-consumption systems, the food circle is a production-consumption-recycle model. A celebration of cycles, this model mirrors all natural systems and is based on the fact that all stable, biological and other systems function as closed cycles or circles, carefully preserving energy, nutrients, resources and the integrity of the whole." [Ibid] See also: Food Circles Networking Project: Vision, (8/23/07)

Food Miles

The distance food travels from where it is grown or raised to where it is ultimately purchased by the consumer or end-user. "Local food systems can reduce ‘food miles’ and transportation costs, offering significant energy savings. Consumers also benefit from fresher, better-tasting, and more nutritious food, while more food dollars stay within rural communities." [Reducing Food Miles, ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Available at ATTRA Website: (8/23/07)]


Low Input Agriculture:

Low input farming systems "seek to optimize the management and use of internal production inputs (i.e. on-farm resources)... and to minimize the use of production inputs (i.e. off-farm resources), such as purchased fertilizers and pesticides, wherever and whenever feasible and practicable, to lower production costs, to avoid pollution of surface and groundwater, to reduce pesticide residues in food, to reduce a farmer's overall risk, and to increase both short- and long-term farm profitability." [JF Parr et al., "Sustainable Agriculture in the United States," in Sustainable Agricultural Systems, ed. by Clive A. Edwards, et al. (Ankeny IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society, 1990), p. 52. NAL Call # S494.5 S86S86]

The term is "somewhat misleading and indeed unfortunate. For some it implied that farmers should starve their crops, let the weeds choke them out, and let insects clean up what was left. In fact, the term low-input referred to purchasing few off-farm inputs (usually fertilizers and pesticides), while increasing on-farm inputs (i.e. manures, cover crops, and especially management). Thus, a more accurate term would be different input or low external input rather than low-input." [David Norman, et al., Defining and Implementing Sustainable Agriculture (Kansas Sustainable Agriculture Series, Paper #1; Manhattan KS: Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1997). Available at K-State Research and Extension Web Site for Sustainable Agriculture: (8/23/07)]


Natural Farming:

Natural Farming reflects the experiences and philosophy of Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. His books The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1978. NAL Call # S604 F72) and The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy (Tokyo; New York: Japan Publications, 1985. NAL Call # S605.5 F72 1987) describe what he calls "do-nothing farming" and a lifetime of nature study. "His farming method involves no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no weeding, no pruning, and remarkably little labor! He accomplishes all this (and high yields) by careful timing of his seeding and careful combinations of plants (polyculture). In short, he has brought the practical art of working with nature to a high level of refinement." [Robert and Diane Gilman, "Greening the Desert: An Interview with Masanobu Fukuoka," In Context (Autumn 1986) 14: p. 37. Available at In Context Website (8/23/07):]


Nature Farming:

Nature farming grew out of the philosophy and methodology of Japanese philosophist, Mokicho Okada in the mid-1940s. "The theory of Nature Farming, as Okada expounded it, rests on a belief in the universal life-giving powers that the elements of fire, water, and earth confer on the soil... The planet's soil, created over a span of eons, has acquired life-sustaining properties, in accordance with the principle of the indivisibility of the spiritual and the physical realms, which in turn provide the life-force that enables plants to grow. To utilize the inherent power of the soil is the underlying principle of Nature Farming." [Mokicho Okada Association, "The Fundamentals of MOA Nature Farming," in Nature Farming and Its Practice (MOA International 1995).]

Related term:

Kyusei Nature Farming: Developed by Teruo Higa in Japan during the 1980s, "Kyusei Nature Farming means saving the world through natural or organic farming methods... An added dimension of Kyusei Nature Farming is that it often employs technology involving beneficial microorganisms as inoculants to increase the microbial diversity of agricultural soils, which, in turn, can enhance the growth, health, and yield of crops." [JF Parr et al., First International Conference on Kyusei Nature Farming (Khon Kaen, Thailand, Oct. 1989) (Washington DC: USDA/USAID, 1991), p. v. NAL Call # aS605.5.I56 1989]


Nutrient Management:

Nutrient management is "managing the amount, source, placement, form, and timing of the application of nutrients and soil amendments to ensure adequate soil fertility for plant production and to minimize the potential for environmental degradation, particularly water quality impairment." [USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), general Manual (Part 402 Nutrient Management)] Available at NRCS Website: (8/23/07)]

Nutrient management has taken on new connotations in recent times. Soil fertility traditionally dealt with supplying and managing nutrients to meet crop production requirements, focusing on optimization of agronomic production and economic returns to crop production. Contemporary nutrient management deals with these same production concerns, but recognizes that ways of farming must now balance the limits of soil and crop nutrient use with the demands of intensive animal production. Current decision-making processes include crop and animal production factors, economic factors, and the integrity of local surface water and groundwater, as well as the fate of far-away environmental systems. [From: A Nutrient Management Approach for Pennsylvania: Introduction to the Concepts (Penn State CES Agronomy Fact Sheet 38A). Available at PennState Extension Website: (8/23/07)]


Organic Farming:

The term 'organic farming' was first used by Lord Northbourne in the book, Look to the Land (London: Dent, 1940. NAL Call # 30 N81). Lord Northbourne, who embraced the teachings of Rudolph Steiner and biodynamic farming, had a "vision of the farm as a sustainable, ecologically stable, self-contained unit, biologically complete and balanced--a dynamic living organic whole...The term thus did not refer solely to the use of living materials (organic manures, etc) in agriculture although obviously it included them, but with its emphasis on 'wholeness' is encompassed best by the definition 'of, pertaining to, or characterized by systematic connexion or coordination of parts of the one whole.' (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971.)" [AM Scofield, "Editorial: Organic Farming--The Origin of the Name," Biological Agriculture and Horticulture (1986) 4: pp. 1-5. NAL Call # S605.5 B5]

Organic farming was championed in the United States by J.I. Rodale, beginning in the mid-1940s. "The organic farmer and gardener must realize that fertilization is not the only measure for success. He must treat the soil as a living, breathing entity. He must rotate crops. He must fallow the land at regulated intervals. The organiculturist must not practice one-crop monoculture but must engage in a balanced agriculture with cattle as part of the general program. He must be smart in the ways of soil and crops, observing the reaction of the land to the actions of man. For instance, he must know when to plant, when to harvest, and what varieties of seed to use. Compost alone does not make a successful gardener any more than does gardening without compost." ["The Organiculturist’s Creed," in The Organic Front, Chapter 8 (Emmaus PA: Rodale Press, 1948). NAL Call # 56.6 R610]

As defined by a USDA Study Team on Organic Farming, "Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds and other pests." [Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming (Washington DC: USDA, 1980), p. xii. NAL Call # aS605.5 U52. Available at AFSIC Website: (8/23/07)]

The following definition was drafted and passed by the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in April 1995. It was developed by a joint NOSB/National Organic Program task force, and incorporated language from the Codex Draft Guidelines for organically produced foods: "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. ‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water. Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people." [Final Minutes of the National Organic Standards Board, Orlando, Florida, April 24-28, 1995 (NOSB, 1994), p. 50. Available at NOSB Web site: (6/9/08)]

"Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too." [What is organic food? (USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program (NOP)).]

See also: Definitions of Organic Agriculture. International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Available at IFOAM Website: (8/23/07)



A contraction of "permanent agriculture," the word "permaculture" was coined by Australian Bill Mollison in the late 1970s. One of the many alternative agriculture systems described as sustainable, permaculture is "unique in its emphasis on design; that is, the location of each element in a landscape, and the evolution of landscape over time. The goal of permaculture is to produce an efficient, low-maintenance integration of plants, animals, people and structure... applied at the scale of a home garden, all the way through to a large farm." [John Quinney, "Permaculture in the United States," The New Alchemy Quarterly (Spring 1986) 23: p. 3. NAL Call # S589.7 N48] [See also, Andrew Jeeves, Introduction to Permaculture and Bill Mollison, The Terrible Time of Day (Pamphlet I in the Permaculture Design Course Series, published by Yankee Permaculture). Available at Barking Frogs Website: (8/23/07)]


Precision Farming/Agriculture:

Precision agriculture is a "management strategy that employs detailed, site-specific information to precisely manage production inputs. This concept is sometimes called Precision Agriculture, Prescription Farming, Site-specific Management. The idea is to know the soil and crop characteristics unique to each part of the field, and to optimize the production inputs within small portions of the field. The philosophy behind precision agriculture is that production inputs (seed, fertilizer, chemicals, etc.) should be applied only as needed and where needed for the most economic production." [Stephen W. Searcy, "Precision Farming: A New Approach to Crop Management" (Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Publication L-5177). Available at Texas A&M Website: (8/23/07)]

This system requires the utilization of sophisticated technology including personal computers, telecommunications, global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), variable rate controllers, and infield and remote sensing. Although precision agriculture promises reduced use of chemical inputs, there are several factors that make it controversial in the sustainable agriculture community, including the requirements of large capital outlay and advanced technical expertise.


Regenerative Agriculture:

Robert Rodale coined this term, and it subsequently was expanded to "regenerative/sustainable agriculture" by the Rodale Institute and Rodale Research Center. Two reasons given for the emphasis on "regenerative" are (1) "enhanced regeneration of renewable resources is essential to the achievement of a sustainable form of agriculture," and (2) "the concept of regeneration would be relevant to many economic sectors and social concerns." [Robert Rodale, "Sustainability: An Opportunity for Leadership," in Sustainable Agricultural Systems, ed. by Clive A. Edwards, et al. (Ankeny IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society, 1990), pp. 84-85. NAL Call # S494.5 S86S86]


Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program (USDA):

SARE is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's primary means of studying and publicizing sustainable agriculture practices. Through a competitive grants program that works with teams of agencies, organizations, and farmers, more than 3000 (8/23/07) projects have been implemented.

Initially called the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program, SARE was authorized by Congress in the Food Security Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-198) in response to widespread acknowledgment that science-based information was lacking for farmers seeking to reduce chemical use in crop production. The LISA program got started with a $3.9 million appropriation in 1988. The Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 renamed LISA the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and added two other programs--one for research on integrated crop/livestock operations, and another to train Extension Service agents in disseminating sustainable farming practices. In 1991, the SARE program began cooperating with the Environmental Protection Agency to administer the Agriculture in Concert with the Environment (ACE) program. [For more information: Sustainable Agriculture Network Website: (8/23/07)]


Sustainable Development:

During the past 10 years, considerable interest in sustainability as applied to all areas of human activity has emerged worldwide. In response, President Clinton created the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) in April 1993. The Council members adopted the Brundtland Commission definition, saying that sustainable development must ... "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." [The World Commission on Environment and Development ("The Brundtland Commission"), Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 43. NAL Call # HD75.6 O9]

The President's Council's vision statement reads: "Our vision is of a life-sustaining Earth. We are committed to the achievement of a dignified, peaceful, and equitable existence. A sustainable United States will have a growing economy that provides equitable opportunities for satisfying livelihoods and safe, healthy, high quality of life for current and future generations. Our nation will protect its environment, its natural resource base, and the functions and viability of natural systems on which all life depends." [The President's Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity and a Healthy Environment for the Future (Washington: GPO, 1996), p. iv. NAL Call # HC110 E5S87 1996. Available at PCSD Website: (8/23/07)]


Whole Farm Planning:

Whole farm planning strategies share a conservation, family-oriented approach to farm management, although specific components may vary from farm to farm, and from community to community. "Whole farm planning provides farmers with the management tools they need to manage biologically complex farming systems in a profitable manner. As a management system, it draws on cutting-edge management theory used by other businesses, industries and even cities. It encourages farmers to set explicit goals for their operation; carefully examine and assess all the resources -- cultural, financial, and natural -- available for meeting their goals; develop short- and long-term plans to meet their goals; make decisions on a daily basis that support their goals; and monitor their progress toward meeting goals." [Whole Farm Planning, ("Sponsored by The Minnesota Project, the Great Lakes Whole Farm Planning Network and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA)"). Available at MISA Website: (8/23/07)]

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